The Element of Surprise

Many fantasy stories deal with the protagonist’s transition between our everyday reality and one that’s more…well, fantastic. And it is a big deal. If I opened my basement door tomorrow and found that it had morphed into the passage to a magical world, I’m sure I’d feel either traumatized, or ecstatic–probably both by turns. And assuming I survived, I’d be raving about it to my family and friends (at least, those I thought I could trust) for weeks on end.

I suspect, though, that it’s possible to treat the transition too realistically. One consideration for me is that I read a lot of fantasy…so that means that along with the good stuff (you know, fairies, magic swords, wizards and witches, etc.), I might also wind up reading pages and pages about the shock and angst experienced by characters who find out there’s more to the world than they’d assumed. Of course a character’s reactions might vary depending on their personality, and also what their role in this brave new world turns out to be–are they the Chosen One? The Cursed And Despised Outcast? Or just a foot soldier in somebody else’s war?

Still, though, I would think most people’s inner dialogue would turn into an endless loop, something like this: “How can this be real…what’s happening to me…and what’s that THING over there?”

Which basically boils down to ‘Is this really happening, or am I going crazy?’ Now, you may choose to make this question a major theme of your story, as Steven R. Donaldson did in the Thomas Covenant books. But if you’re not going to do that, I’d argue that devoting too much space to your protagonist’s shock takes away from the really meaty parts, which is why I (and probably I’m not the only one) read fantasy in the first place.

So, as you’ve probably guessed, I tend to take a fairly minimal approach to the element of surprise. Granted, not quite as minimal as M.R. James did in his short story, After Dark in the Playing Fields, where his narrator’s reaction to a talking owl is:

“We will take as read the sentences about my surprise.”

Well, you have to be M.R. James to get away with something like that, but I understand the impulse. Personally, I do try to show that the protagonist knows some really strange stuff is going down, but I don’t feel like much is added by belaboring the point.

And what if the character is already half expecting reality to implode? From one of my unpublished stories:

“It was a black-and-white world, like Dorothy’s Kansas. Nessie had always thought that the same thing would happen to her someday. There would be some turbulent time first, no doubt–a storm, a failed love affair, some dark night of the soul. But then the other world would open before her, with colors never seen on earth.”

Sometimes I think the real surprise is, most of us don’t find the way to that other world. Personally, I’m going to feel just a bit cheated if it never happens. But who knows, maybe there’s still time!

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